By Leo Haggerty


Tampa Bay advanced to the National Football Conference Championship game with a 30-20 triumph over New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.  For the Bucs, the third time was the charm as the Saints had convincingly won the two regular season contests and the Pewter Pirates did it in come from behind fashion scoring the last 17 points of the contest.

After spotting the Saints an early 6-0 lead on two Wil Lutz field goals, one from 23 yards and the other a 42 yard boot, the Bucs cracked the scoreboard at 12:57 of the second quarter.  K Ryan Succop banged home a 26 yard three pointer that finished off a 10 play drive that consumed 6:42 going 62 yards.  That cut the New Orleans lead to 6-3.

The Buccaneers took the lead just 1:41 later courtesy of their defense. QB Drew Brees (19-of-34 for 134 yards and 1 TD with 3 INTs) had his pass intended for WR Michael Thomas intercepted by CB Sean Murphy-Bunting who returned the pigskin to the NO 3 yard line.

It only took Tampa Bay 4 ticks to go the three yards.  On the first play following the turnover, QB Tom Brady (18-of-33 for 199 yards and 2 TD’s with 0 INTs) connected with WR Mike Evans on a quick slant route in the end zone.  Succup converted the PAT and that gave the Bucs their first lead of the tilt at 10-6.

The Big Easy Gang retook the lead at 8:08 of the second period with some trickeration.  Lining up in the Wildcat formation, RB Alvin Kamara handed off to WR Emmanuel Sanders who lateraled to QB Jameis Winston.  The former Buccaneer signal caller then threw a perfect strike to a wide open WR Tre’Quan Smith in the middle of the field for a 56 yard pass and run score.  The deception ended a 70 yard drive that took six plays in 3:08.  Lutz’s extra point put NO back on top by a count of 13-10.

Tampa Bay closed out the score on the last play of the first half.  Succop split the uprights from 37 yards out that culminated a 13 play drive that traversed 68 yards in 2:28.  That sent both teams to the locker room with the score all knotted up at 13 apiece.

NO wasted no time in regaining the lead at 9:43 of the third quarter.  After taking the second half kickoff, the Saints moved 75 yards in 10 plays that took 5:17 of clock time.  Brees found Smith down the right side for the score and Lutz converted the PAT to put the Saints back up 20-13.

That was the last points New Orleans would score as the Pewter Pirates defense pitched a shutout the rest of the tilt.  That put the onus on the offense and TB was up to the task with a lot of help from the guys on the other side of the ball.

After FS Antoine Winfield Jr. forced a fumble that was recovered by LB Devin White and returned to the Saints 40 yard line, the Bucs evened the score at the 2:22 mark of the third period.  Brady found RB Leonard Fournette at the goal line to complete a six yard strike.  The TD pass finished off a 40 yard drive that took 2:08 to go 40 yards.  Succop’s kick was good and that tied the score at 20 each.

Tampa Bay came all the way back at 9:52 of the fourth quarter.  After forcing a New Orleans punt, the Buccaneers went 71 yards in 11 plays eating up 5:52 with Succop hitting his third FG of the contest.  That gave the Pewter Pirates a 23-20 advantage.

The Bucs added an insurance marker with 4:57 left in regulation with the help of their defense.  White intercepted a Brees passed intended for Kamara and set Tampa Bay up with a short field opportunity.  Brady did the honors with a one yard sneak over left guard that took 2:11 to go 20 yards in four plays.  Succop again was true with the PAT and that stretched the Pewter Pirates lead to 30-20.

Any thoughts of the Saints getting back into the contest were dashed just 40 seconds later.  Brees was picked off for the third time with SS Mike Edwards coming up with the INT.  After the turnover, the Bucs offense played keep away for the last 4:17 to secure the victory

Now it’s on to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon to take on the Green Bay Packers.  As of now, the weather report is for temperatures in the 20s and a 50/50 chance of snow so Mother Nature could be a factor.

Catch Rob Kriete’s Buc Up column this Saturday for all the info you’ll need for the game.  Then, we’ll meet you at the TV at 3 pm EST with the winner going to Super Bowl LV.  Until then, stay safe.